Striking: Labor Unions and Immigrants
The American labor movement surged in membership between 1860 and 1920 as post-Civil War industrialization was accompanied by the rise of immigration and economic upheaval. In this time of great change and uncertainty, the newest Americans often found themselves in vulnerable positions of uncertain jobs, housing, and support networks. Workers, skilled and unskilled, native-born and immigrant joined the Knights of Labor and later the Industrial Workers of the World. The more skilled and native born likely joined the American Federation of Labor. Smaller, more specialized unions also attracted membership, including recent immigrants; some of these affiliated with the national unions. Sometimes unions were not welcoming to immigrants or to women. The story of two strikes and the issues surrounding unions and those they proposed to unionize or exclude are the focus of this unit. One is the Shoemakers’ Strike of 1870 in North Adams, MA in which the Irish and French Canadian-born members of the Knights of St. Crispin confronted Chinese workers brought in as replacements. The other is the “Bread and Roses” Textile Strike of 1912 in Lawrence, MA. The strike, started by Immigrant women workers and continued by them, sometimes in spite of the presence of the IWW, the AFL, soldiers, national media, and others. Striking families had to choose whether to send their children away to board for the duration of the strike. This decision also led to a confrontation between management and labor. Deciding what to do, with the union or not, was never easy.
In this unit students will learn about the issues and conditions which immigrant labor in Gilded Age America experienced, the nature of unions, how unions could aid or hinder immigrant workers, and they ways in which workers exerted their own autonomy. They will look at contemporary images, Congressional testimony, and newspaper reports to delve into immigrant labor’s point of view in the North Adams Strike of 1870 and in the “Bread and Roses” Strike of 1912. By taking the perspective of those who were included or excluded from union membership and from the American Dream students can connect past to present.
Image credit: Guarding approach to mills, Lawrence, Mass.